Commentary on Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
The issue at the center of Psalm 37 concerns the intersection of moral, ethical, and economic existence for the faithful. The advice of the acrostic and wisdom psalm is a heartfelt and difficult one: to vigorously live out the hope founded on faith in the God of the righteous and the meek. As such, the psalm deals with the connections between the earthly reality of economic and ethical living and the heavenly reality of divine moral will. Those who strive for righteousness are choosing to live in a world in which God reigns as the moral and economic authority—not, as it may be tempting to believe, the wicked, the wrongdoers, and their minions. Righteous living, in other words, is a protest against the machinations of the wicked and a concrete expression of faith in God.
Verse 35 clearly depicts the problematic center of the lived experience of the psalm:
35 I have seen the wicked oppressing,
and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.1 (See also 37:7, 16)
The psalm ascribes wicked behavior to the prosperous, figured in verse 35 as the legendary cedars of Lebanon. In addition, the psalm suggests that prosperity is the fruit of wrongdoing, including the oppression of the poor and righteous (37:7, 12, 14, 32). The other side of the wicked-prosperous equation is the call for the poor to commit themselves to godly righteousness (see also 37:3–5). That is, the psalm presents a bifurcated vision of lived experience in which the wicked prosper by their wickedness and the righteous suffer despite their righteousness.
The bifurcated moral vision fuels the rhetorical passion of the psalm from the beginning:
1 Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb (37:1–2)
The psalm addresses the righteous poor throughout; and the opening counsel against worry and envy assumes, first, that the poor suffer on account of the wicked wrongdoers and second, that the wicked prosper on account of their oppressive wrongdoings (37:7, 35). The simplistic equation of wickedness and prosperity makes the moral clarity of verse 2 possible: God will destroy the prosperous because they are wicked. And the clarity of that moral vision funds the rhetorical force of the psalm’s repeated plea for trust in God: “Trust in the LORD”(37:3); “Take delight in the LORD” (37:4); “Commit your way to the LORD” (37:5); “Be still before the LORD” (37:7).
The simple moral vision in which the prosperous are wicked and the poor are righteous serves the rhetorical purpose of the psalm well, namely, the exhortation of the meek toward righteous living and faithfulness toward God. The apparent moral clarity, however, can become a moral pitfall and, in any case, is a mirage. We do well, therefore, to examine closely and appreciate more fully the complexity of the psalm’s moral vision concerning the intersection among economic, ethical, and moral realities.
The pitfall is the temptation to take too seriously the simplistic division between the prosperous and the poor and between the wicked and the righteous. The temptation to do so is endemic to the psalm, since the psalm itself seems to cast such a vision. But also endemic to the psalm is a counterargument to the simplistic moral vision.
The first counterargument is the psalm’s confident declaration that God oversees both the moral universe and the economic reality. Consistently throughout the psalm, God is said to be against the wicked and their wrongdoings and for the righteous and their good deeds. Furthermore, in this theological vision of the moral/economic landscape, the wicked are destined for destruction and the righteous for the inheritance of the land—which means, in the agrarian society of ancient Israel, financial security and, within the context of the Hebrew Bible, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. This theological claim that God oversees both the moral and economic dimensions of lived life speaks against a strictly bifurcated reality in which the wicked oppress the poor and the rich oppose the righteous.
In fact, the temptation to buy into the simplistic moral vision that binds wickedness and prosperity is precisely what the psalm warns against from beginning to end. The reason that the poor are to eschew fretting about the wicked and being envious of wrongdoers for their prosperity, according to the psalm, is because God, and not the seemingly powerful wicked wrongdoers, is the one who is ultimately in control. That is, the perception that the wicked are in control of the lived economic realities of the poor is a momentary mirage.
If the poor and the righteous fret about the wicked and are envious of wrongdoers, it is because they have begun to believe that the wicked prosper by their wickedness (37:7) and are tempted to mimic them. The psalm speaks against such a perception as a mirage and declares that God is in control. It is God who will give the land as an inheritance to those who trust in him and choose to live in righteousness (37:9, 22, 29, 34). That is to say, to believe that the wicked prosper by their wrongdoing is to fail to trust in God.
Two further temptations and potential misperceptions arise once we ascribe to God full control over the moral and the economic realities. The first temptation is to interpret the present situation, in which the wicked seem to have prospered by their wrongdoing, as a permanent feature of divine rule, that is, as proof of divine failure to uphold the promise of salvation and redemption for the righteous who trust in the Lord (37:39–40). The second potential misperception is to defer God’s promised salvation perpetually into the future. The former leads to despair, and the second to an other-worldly focus.
This brings us to the more nuanced moral and economic vision of the psalm. The psalm acknowledges that the wicked prosper by their wrongdoings, including the oppression of the poor and the righteous. However, it does not equate prosperity squarely with wickedness. For example, verses 21–22 speaks of “the righteous [who] are generous and keep giving” and apparently have already been “blessed by the LORD” and have “inherit[ed] the land.” The prosperous may be equally wicked and righteous. And the same can be said about the poor. The poor can be wicked (37:22). In the same vein, the psalm exhorts the oppressed and the righteous to trust in God because they also experience the temptation to fret and be envious of the wicked wrongdoers, to believe that prosperity can be had by wickedness. In sum, the psalm complicates any effort to bind prosperity to either wickedness or righteousness, while steadfastly maintaining that God favors the righteous and the oppressed against the claims of the wicked.
In conclusion, Psalm 37 speaks against the temptation to see wickedness, especially the oppression of others, as a sustainable path toward prosperity. God is not neutral about the ethics of economic life and condemns gain that comes at the cost of injustice and oppression. Rather, the psalm claims that God looks with prejudicial interest on the plight of the poor and remains committed to a blessedness that builds on the moral and ethical good.
3Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security (37:3).
- Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.