By Neil Earle
Psalm 37 is called a Wisdom Song. That is, its primary purpose is not to lead us to worship or explain more of the nature of God. It is instead one believer encouraging another in the right way to live, though of course – like everywhere in the Bible – God is always in the picture, even if slightly off camera.
“Don’t fret!” What a message for our times!
After a summer of oil spills, tea parties, economic paralysis, Koran near-burnings, mosque controversies, viral media we may appreciate Psalm 37’s timeless wisdom.
A slogan in the Presidential election of 1924 was “Keep Cool with Coolidge” but there seems to be little cooling off in modern American politics. The cable shows seem to be throwing pitchforks at their audiences and the talk shows are often vicious. Want a wild prophetic speculation? This will not get any better after the November election.
So here we are poised halfway between galloping hysteria and fading hope.
And here is where the Wisdom of Psalm 37 can be so valuable to those who want to take advantage of its healing message.
It’s intriguing that the phrase “fret not” occurs three times in the first twelve verses. The Hebrew word here is “charah,” and in context it is transliterated “lo-charah” – do not fret!! Three times – lo charah!
So we have to ask – what does charah mean? “Charah” is mostly translated heat, burning, to glow, to blaze, to be angry, displeased, incensed. Ah, no rocket science needed here. This psalm is in that healthy tradition of divine counsel to not get upset about things, not to leave the Great God out of the picture neither nationally, globally nor personally. Without God our lives can be nothing but a whirligig of turmoil, random events assailing us like the waves of the sea (Isaiah 57: 20-21). With God in the picture we will have troubles but he promises to see us through them (1 Corinthians 1013).
Let’s see how this marvelous advice works.
Verse 1: “Do not fret because of evildoers.”
As a pastor it’s always a privilege to remind people most weeks that the Psalms were not dictated by people in air-conditioned offices ready to send a memo before dashing off to their favorite watering hole. No. Not at all. David, author of this section, was forced to flee from rock to rock because of the jealously of King Saul. Remember? Talk about being caught in office politics. David had done nothing to deserve his stint in the wilderness. But he was treated as an outlaw for perhaps the good part of a decade before things worked out (1 Samuel 24:14). He knew about evildoers, gossipers, fifth columnists, betrayers (1 Samuel 23:12-13). When he wrote of the “arrow that flies by day,” well, that was no metaphor in his case.
Yet David’s advice is precious – “Trust in the Lord and do good.” A couple of weeks ago we studied 1 Samuel 25 for a story of where David’s anger burned hot, a time he turned blazing, burning incensed. Remember how God sent a wise woman to turn him from doing something despicable? Yes, David was not writing from an ivory tower. His situations are recorded to help us cope today (Romans 15:4).
Verse 4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” How can we do that? What does that mean exactly? Again David’s biography is helpful. Few men praised God like the son of Jesse. Here was an eloquent solider-poet who had ample cause to celebrate God as the Rock of his life. Innumerable scrapes and setbacks tried his patience and his ingenuity. He made many mistakes – some of them quite serious. But at the end of the day David always knew how to get back home – “The Lord is my shepherd…I shall lack for nothing…he restores my soul…he leads me besides still waters.”
That’s delighting in the Lord for personal care, for daily wisdom, for providential concern. We sometimes act as if we “have to pray or God is missing something,” as if he were some pagan deity whom we have to appease. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is we who are missing out when we choose not to delight in God. He after all is the one true Source of wisdom and help, the One who can give us “the breaks.”
One way to get back on that path is to simply pray a prayer of thanks for ten things that are going well in our lives. Try it. Write them down. Meditate on them. You’ll see that nothing primes the pump of prayer like thanksgiving. Of all mortal humans, David knew that.
Verse 5: “Commit your way to the Lord…and he shall bring it to pass.”
This week I had twelve things to do that were more or less urgent. I did what I often do in such cases. I got up, prepared a cup of tea, sat down at my desk, read this psalm and some others, wrote out my assignments and laid them before the Lord in prayer. Result? Some of the ickiest jobs – like going to the garage with my car – worked out like clockwork. In fact the mechanic gave me a break – no charge for installing a new rear light. That doesn’t happen often but I know from 39 years in ministry that God is seen as much in the small as he is in the huge. Who knows, the prophet Joel asked, if God will not leave behind a blessing for seeking him in prayer and occasional fasting (Joel 2:14)?
This is not to treat God as our Valet in the Sky, but Psalm 37:5b promises: “he will bring it to pass.” 1 Peter 5 says to cast our cares on him because he cares for us. What an incentive to return to God, to trust him all over again with the big as well as the small. There’s nothing like it.
Verse 7 says “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently before him.”
Sometimes God tries the righteous for reasons that we only find out later. The patriarch Joseph was in prison when he interpreted the chief butler’s dream. The man got his job back as Joseph had foreseen. “Remember me,” Joseph asked him. But he forgot. For two years Joseph languished in prison until the time of promotion came. When it did Joseph was rewarded more richly than anyone in his family – made Prime Minister of Egypt to save the world from famine. Who could have seen that coming? God! God, of course. He knows the end from the beginning.
So do not fret if you seem to have been passed over, says verse 7. Oh boy, that can be so so hard to take. It’s one of the unkindest cuts in life. But we’ll all face something like that eventually. Don’t let the buffetings and scarrings of life sour your attitude. “Cease from anger,” this Psalm counsels us. “Forsake wrath it only causes harm.”
One lady’s husband desperately wanted to be on the space shuttle program. She prayed and prayed hard about it. At the last minute her husband was bumped and she turned hostile and bitter towards God Himself. She could hardly bring herself to watch that shuttle launch she was so churning with anger. AS she did, biting down her resentment, she saw “Challenger” explode before her eyes.
What a life lesson. Most of the harm in anger is done to us. “The manifestations of the emotion of anger are so numerous that Dr. W.B. Cannon of Harvard University required an entire printed page to list them,” writes John Schindler in How To Live 365 Days a Year. The blood clots quicker than normal, the circulating heart rate shoots up, the blood pressure rises and the cardiovascular system changes markedly. Here is the basis of so much angina pectoris and coronary injury. How wise of Psalm 37 to advise us to cease from anger, to stop fretting and to regain a healthy, godly perspective on life…and where it is going. It is God alone who knows the end from the beginning and he usually has a plan for us that is better than our own.
“The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delights in His way. Though he fall he shall not be cast down, for the Lord upholds him with his hand” (Psalm 37:23-24).
It’s been said that “fear not” is the most common command in the whole Bible and a study of Psalm 37 would show us why. Surely the penalties of fear and fretting are too steep to play around with. Let’s be wise. Let’s trust in the Lord and do good instead. How do you do good? Any public service announcement in your home town will help you get started. Just starting out to do something for others is the first step on the road to not fretting away our lives in angry futility. It worked for Joseph, it worked for David, it will work for you.